The concept of voluntary protection of forests, as a new method to protect nature, has gained a lot of interest since the beginning of 2000s in Finland, Sweden and Norway.
Voluntary protection is based on one main principle: the forest owner can suggest areas to be protected by law. If the authorities accept the proposal the forest owner receives an economic compensation by the government. The forest is then usually set aside as a formal protected area on a permanent basis. In the end, it is always the forest owner who decides whether to offer an area for protection or not. Enhancing a spirit of openness, emphasizing the importance of dialogue and building confidence between the forest owners and other partners are crucial components of voluntary protection in all three countries.
There are a few dissimilarities between the countries regarding the practical implementation of voluntary protection of forests. Partly these differences are due to different administrative traditions and legislative frameworks in the respective country. In Finland temporary agreements with the forest owners, usually for a time period of 10 years, are used in parallel to permanent protection of forests. Nevertheless, establishing permanent protected areas is still the most common type of voluntary protection if Finland. Likewise, establishing permanent nature reserve is the most common method of protection in Sweden and Norway. Another noticeable difference is the role – with regard to hectares covered - of voluntary protection in Sweden vs. Finland and Norway. In Sweden voluntary protection of forests is implemented in parallel to a more traditional approach, and the area included in protected areas as a result of voluntary protection processes has so far on an annual basis been only about 1-2 % of the total forest area protected each year. The situation in Finland and Norway is completely different. In these countries, protection of privately owned forests is in practice realized entirely by voluntary protection.
Regardless of these differences, voluntary protection is carried out in a rather coherent manner on the ground in the three countries. As a starting point, the environmental or forestry authorities define the type of forests that will be given priority in the selection process. The forest owner then suggests potential areas to be evaluated by the authorities. If the outcome is positive, i.e. the suggested area qualifies for protection, negotiations about the conditions for establishing a protected area start. As an end result, in most cases a permanent protected area is established. Environmental and forestry authorities have a crucial role in the implementation of voluntary protection. However, there are some differences between the countries with regard to the responsibilities of each organisation implementing the forest conservation schemes. For instance, in Norway the main co-operation partners are the environmental authorities and the Forest Owners Association, whereas the forestry administration has only a minor role in the procedure.
The three countries apply more or less the same approach when selecting sites to be included in protected areas according to the principles of voluntary protection. The authorities define criteria for the type of forest areas that are important from a conservation point of view. Ecological features are crucial, such as the occurrence of deadwood, but the need to achieve a balanced regional coverage of protected areas is also considered. For instance, more productive forest areas usually display a higher degree of biodiversity and are therefore often given priority in the selection process. In some cases, the occurrence of red listed species may also influence the selection of areas for protection. All three countries use some type of classification system (points, stars etc.) in order to make priorities between areas that have been suggested to be protected. In Finland the environmental and forestry authorities have used the decision support tool Zonation in order to identify potentially valuable forest areas and to target information about voluntary protection to specific forest owners.
Good and transparent communication between the different stakeholders is one main condition for successful implementation of voluntary protection of forests. Especially the interaction between authorities and land owners is crucial. One main challenge is to reach out to the landowners and clearly communicate to them which types of forest areas are important for nature protection. Websites can provide important overall information but more targeted information efforts are also needed, for instance by using information tools and channels already well-known to landowners.
The concept of voluntary protection has been tested and implemented for more than a decade in Finland, Sweden and Norway. It has produced good and viable results and the concept will be applied also in the years to come. As the number of suggestions of areas to be protected may increase in the future, it is important that the quality of these areas still is sufficient from a nature conservation point of view. It is for instance important to consider the size of the individual sites to be included in the protected area networks. Forest areas will also in the future be set aside by landowners without financial compensation, and it is important that this activity continue. The interest for voluntary protection will probably remain relatively high also in the future. It is therefore important that sufficient resources are allocated to the organisations implementing voluntary protection in the three countries.
A large part of the total area of Finland, Sweden and Norway is covered by forests. In these countries, national strategies and polices for conservation of forests have been agreed on.
The national strategy for protection of forests in Sweden was revised in 2017. In agreement with the strategy an additional total forest area of 90 000 hectares should be guaranteed formal protection by 2020, having the situation in 2016 as a baseline.
In Norway the Parliament has agreed on a quantitative objective for forest protection. The long-term goal is to permanently protect 10 % of the forests in Norway. Currently, the protected area coverage with regard to forests is about 4 %.
In Finland, the protection of forests is implemented according to the objectives of the Forest Biodiversity Programme for Southern Finland (METSO). If implemented fully, about 100 000 hectares of forests would be added to the network of protected areas by 2025 as compared to the situation in 2008. At the moment about half of this target has been reached.
In Sweden and Norway the governmental funding for formal protection of forests has increased in recent years. In contrast, the funding of the METSO programme in Finland has decreased considerably since 2013-2014. However, in 2018 some additional governmental funds will be allocated to the implementation of METSO.
For more information consult a more detailed report by the Nordic Council of Ministers (in Swedish).